A rotting bus, a map ripped apart, an empty pool – Matías Costa‘s photo essay Zonians is full of subtle symbols that stand for the end of a dream: that of the American community in the Panama Canal Zone which has enjoyed particularly advantageous benefits and living conditions for almost a century, until the area went under the control of the Panama’s government.
Matías is an Argentinian photographer, currently divided between Spain and Switzerland. Read our interview with him to find out more about his beautifully moody series Zonians.
Hello Matías, thank you for this interview. What are your main interests as a photographer?
I’m interested in issues of memory, identity and territory. I use photography and writing for the construction and reconstruction of storytelling.
What is Zonians about in particular?
Zonians tells the story of a lost paradise. There was a place in the Panamanian jungle where a handful of Americans thought they had found the Promised Land. The inhabitants of the Panama Canal Zone, known as Zonians, were Americans who worked on the maintenance of the canal, and enjoyed a privileged status. They lived by their own rules throughout the twentieth century. But in 1999, when the canal was transferred to Panama and ceased to be a North American territory, the Zonians lost all their privileges, and most of them went back to the USA.
Close to extinction, the exiles of the Zonian community continue to meet annually in Orlando, Florida to wistfully remember their lost paradise. Today, on the centenary of the artery that joined two oceans, some have begun to return to their former home, now a ghost territory. These images, taken between 2011 and 2014 in the Panama Canal and Orlando, follow the traces of the Zonian memory and the moments before their near disappearance.
Please share with us a bit about your creative process for Zonians.
I always choose subjects related to the themes I’m mainly interested in: memory, migration, identity. Zonians was a perfect story in this way. Then I go on the field and just start looking for an atmosphere in the elements that are part of the story, including places, people and objects.
Mention the skill that you think is most critical in the education of a photographer.
I think a photographer has to know the work of the authors that came before him, and find a way to visually translate his thoughts and feelings about life.
What would you say to convince someone who never cared about photography at all to start buying photobooks and visiting exhibitions?
I would not try to convince anyone, just invite them to include photography in their regular free time activities with an open mind. If they go to the correct places, the rest will come by itself.
Describe your photographic diet.
I read two or three photography magazines online, I visit photography exhibitions every month and I often see photobooks (and buy some as well).
Do you have any other passion besides photography?
Choose a photograph from Zonians and share with us something we can’t see in the picture.
This is a picture of drain pipes on Gatun Lake, within the garden area of the Hotel Meliá Panama Canal located at Espinar, the former U.S. Military Base Fort Gulick, near the city of Colon. The Hotel is situated in the former facilities of the School of Americas, an Army Training Institute where lots of soldiers and dictators learned techniques of dirty war. More than 60,000 soldiers graduated from this institute who were subsequently employed in the police systems of up to 23 countries across Latin America; some of them were responsible for crimes against humanity.
In that institute US instructors were trained in methods of torture, murder and suppression which they later used to repress thousands of protesters in Latin America. Those were the Cold War years: the institute’s main mission was to serve as an instrument to prepare Latin American nations to cooperate with the United States and thus counter the growing influence of left-wing political organizations.
Choose your #threewordsforphotography.
Intuition. Mystery. Subtlety.